The white patches characteristic of leukoplakia are usually well defined, often thickened, raised, or both, and develop at various sites, mostly in the mouth, but also in the genital region. The condition mainly affects men between the ages of 40 and 70.
However, leukoplakia is what is known as pre-cancerous, meaning that it can lead to cancer, although even if diagnosed quite late it can be cured. But everyone should be on their guard against leukoplakia: in its early stages it causes no pain, and goes easily undetected.
Causes of Leukoplakia.
Leukoplakia can occur for no obvious reason, or it can be put down to long-term irritation. Doctors remember the most likely irritations by the six ‘S’—smoking, syphilis, sepsis (destructive infection), spirits, spices and sore tooth.
Heavy smoking and drinking are established causes, although exactly how they affect the skin is not known.
Some spices, similarly, can be irritants, and so may leakage of infected material from a tooth. Chewing, or biting the inside of the cheek have been known to produce the condition, too. These days, syphilis, largely curable by antibiotics (drugs which kill bacteria) is not a common cause.
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If leukoplakia occurs in the mouth, the patches may develop on the insides of the cheeks, on the tongue, or as far down the throat as the larynx. In the genital region, they can come on the inner foreskin, and on the vulva.
In addition to the fact that there is no pain, early leukoplakia is almost un-noticeable, apart from a paleness and slight thickening of the affected patch of skin. Later, the skin becomes obviously thickened and irregular.
There may be sensitivity to hot food and some itching; later, too, there may be local pain and some bleeding from fissures which form. It can be a sign that cancer can develop.
In the genital region, leukoplakia of the vagina is the most common form, with itching as the main symptom. In all cases, it is usually the doctor who first identifies the condition.
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There are other conditions which may appear to be leukoplakia, among them a yeast infection (a curable affliction of the mouth or vagina) or an ulcer (again, easily cured). But if the patches persist for a few days, go to your doctor.
The treatment is first to remove the irritation so that the condition does not worsen, then to observe it. When required, the patches can easily be removed by heat or freezing, or, in more advanced cases, by surgery.
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Frequently Asked Questions.
1. I get the most awful-looking white patches on my tongue from time to time. Is this leukoplakia?
No. Patches like this which come and go are a relatively normal condition of the tongue, often called furring. Indigestion, sleeping with the mouth open or not eating for an extended period may well be to blame. Leukoplakia, by contrast, is a permanent condition.
However, there is a possibility that you are developing a yeast infection, which may spread if you do not have it treated. So it is worth having a check-up in any case if the furring is unusually persistent.
2. My gynaecologist said I had a small patch of leukoplakia in my vagina and scraped it off while I was under anesthetic. Will the leukoplakia develop again?
Probably not. Scraping off leukoplakia with an instrument which either burns or freezes usually solves the problem for good. But the treatment is almost always followed up by regular inspections, and provided these are carried out, you can be sure that even if the leukoplakia does recur, it can be just as effectively removed by a number of methods.
3. A friend of mine has told me that if I think I have leukoplakia I should go to the clinic specializing in sexual diseases. Is this true?
No. Your friend has probably read somewhere that syphilis, which is a sexually transmitted disease, can cause leukoplakia in its later stages. But this only happens very occasionally. So if you think you have the condition, you should consult your family doctor first.
4. If I give up smoking, will this reduce my chances of developing leukoplakia?
Yes. Heavy smoking is one of the main, identified causes of leukoplakia, and removing this irritant will make you much less likely to develop the condition. And it is worth giving up smoking anyway.
Leukoplakia means ‘white patches’ on the body. It is an uncommon condition, but it can lead to cancer, although it is curable if treated.